A City Response to Labor Market Changes

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Automation has the potential to change the nature of work. Wingham Rowan, the director of Britain’s Beyond Jobs project, offers a new approach to non-standard labor that accommodates those changes.

photo - flexible labor markets
If well-executed, centralized databases for the irregular work market can create a pool of highly flexible, motivated workers – an asset for employer attraction, workforce development and community interactions. (Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Wingham Rowan.

As the National League of Cities investigates the future of work, some food for thought: a new wave of robots has been developed to replace workers in care homes. For many, this will be a worrying development. But, as a Financial Times report explains, workforce optimists argue that new forms of employment will evolve in response to automation.

The business case for service providers switching to cheap, reliable, unflagging, robo-caregivers seems unarguable. But it is likely to reshape sectors like elder care. Robots work best in premises modified for their needs: easily traversed floors fitted with recharging points and uncluttered spaces.

The one-off costs of adapting a care home to these requirements can be quickly recouped in staff savings, so residential care should become cheaper. But at-home care in widely varying dwellings, each scoped for humans, is harder to computerize. The economics of robotics are likely to drive citizens needing care out of their communities into low-cost, centralized facilities where machines can thrive.

As with automation elsewhere, the business case for this process ignores externalities borne by local economies: lost employment, narrowed tax base, diminished community capital. These problems for city leaders will grow. Automation in manufacturing, transportation and services is now widely agreed to be unstoppable, with 48 percent of jobs forecast to go by 2034. It is already increasingly hard to find a traditional, steady job in roles such as contact center agent, cleaner, driver, packer or food preparer.

Humans fight back

It seems likely that any replacement forms of employment will be on the labor market fringes, not in traditional jobs. When a need for work is on-going and predictable, it has, for centuries, led to creation of a new post by the employer. Now it offers a business case for adapting a building or process for automation. Unpredictable work in less controllable environments, such as at-home care, can be done by machines – but it’s harder, riskier and more expensive.

This could be where the economics of human workers can be bolstered. But it can be hard to arrange the right people for ad-hoc requirements like at-home care. There are typically high overheads on these bookings, and workers are too often unreliable or unmotivated. Could this situation be reversed?

Imagine a website offering a citywide market for irregular work. Any citizen can add themselves to the job pool as they see fit, list their skills and certifications, and selectively choose the terms on which they will sell their time and the hours they want to sell. Workers can only sell their time after vetting by an approved intermediary. With just a few clicks, any bona fide employer can book replacement or temporary workers across thousands of types of work for a given requirement.

This technology, which has been developed by our organization, is called a CEDAH: Central Database of Available Hours. It aims to unlock all possible demand for hourly workers by making it easy and reliable to book, then re-book, local workers. Crucially, each person is on a personalized path to better and more secure work. To enable that, the CEDAH offers constant data on opportunities while supporting labor market interventions and innovations that are not currently feasible. Our mission is to unleash a 21st-century model of irregular work.

A CEDAH takes in (a) all the types of jobs workers are willing to do (plus certification where required), (b) the terms on which they will sell their time, and (c) the hours they want to sell today, tomorrow or in the future. Unlike other databases, however, a CEDAH can support protections, training models and financial services. (Source: Beyond Jobs)
A CEDAH takes in (a) all the types of jobs workers are willing to do (plus certification where required), (b) the terms on which they will sell their time, and (c) the hours they want to sell today, tomorrow or in the future. Unlike other databases, however, a CEDAH can support protections, training models and financial services. (Source: Beyond Jobs)

Initiating a new model

This worker-centric model differs from the “gig economy” websites often fighting city regulators at present. It has no aspirations to lock in users, earn profit from individual transactions, or safeguard its aggregated data; it seeks only to boost local employment and drive up workforce quality. Public bodies routinely foster facilities with these ambitions for their labor market: each U.S. state, for instance, runs a job bank. A CEDAH extends that philosophy to a new era of less predictable work. If well-executed, it can create a pool of highly flexible, motivated workers – an asset for employer attraction, workforce development and community interactions.

A CEDAH is challenging to launch. The technology was funded by U.K. government bodies. Learning in Britain showed that a new market can quickly be swamped by people needing hourly work, with bookings slower to move to a new channel. This unbalanced platform struggles to survive as disenchanted workers then exit. To avoid this, there needs to be a process of “market making” in any city before the CEDAH workforce is established. That involves aligning local stakeholders behind the fledgling service, then ensuring enough aligned demand and supply to reach critical mass.

For decades, city leaders have sought to lower unemployment rates. That should remain a priority. But this goal increasingly involves fighting back against the economics of automation. Looking at the less predictable world of irregular work could be the start of a counterattack that benefits local communities, making it more cost effective for a senior to stay in her home with on-demand visits from a pool of favoured local workers for instance.

About the Author: Wingham Rowan ran the U.K. government projects to create better markets for irregular work and is Director of the Beyond Jobs project.